No matter how many months of rumors and insider reports precede an anticipated Apple announcement, it’s probable that, when Steve Jobs actually reveals the product on stage, it’s going to be radically different than what people are expecting… but iCloud could be the most radical deviation yet between the fancy of pre-announcement hype and the reality of Apple’s finished product.
What people expected from iCloud was a streaming cloud locker for your media collection: iCloud would scan your iTunes library and automatically mirror them on a central server, allowing you to stream any song you owned to any device you owned without being bothered with local storage.
What people got? iTunes Match. It scans and matches your iTunes library in the cloud, sure, but there is no streaming: any time you want to listen to an album that’s not on your iPhone or iPad, you’ve got to download it from the cloud onto your device.
No streaming? What was Apple thinking?
From a consumer perspective, the lack of streaming in iCloud and iTunes Match is a conspicuous omission. After all, not only was all of the pre-announcement rumors about iCloud focused on streaming, but it’s what people have been crying for all along: a way to leverage ubiquitous mobile internet connections to break free of the limitations of local storage, once and for all. It’s why users have flocked to services like Spotify and Rdio, and it’s the only draw of competing locker services like Amazon Cloud Locker and Google Music. How could Apple leave streaming out?
Easy. We were all wrong. iCloud wasn’t supposed to liberate us from the limitations of onboard storage… at least not yet. It’s supposed to liberate us from iTunes. It’s supposed to liberate us from the PC.
iCloud basically cuts the umbilical between your computer and your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch. iCloud not only pushes your purchased apps, books, video and music to every device automatically, it stores your photos, updates your firmware and stores and restores your device backups. iTunes Match, meanwhile, makes sure that you can get your iTunes music library onto your iOS device without ever plugging in a USB cable. Once iTunes Match is supplemented with video support (and it will be), there will literally be no reason for 99.9% of iOS users to ever plug their iDevices into a computer.
With iCloud, Apple was thinking bigger than just streaming. They wanted to fulfill Steve Jobs promise of a post PC age, and that meant finally killing off the one product that more than any other built Apple’s modern day empire: iTunes.
That’s not to say that streaming can’t come to iCloud and iTunes Match. In fact, it would be a fairly trivial thing for Apple to add in down the line.
So why didn’t iCloud launch with music streaming? Simple. As we highlighted before, while the technology is there to stream all of your music from the cloud to your device, the carriers’ prohibitive capped mobile data plans simply aren’t made for demoting local storage in favor of cloud streaming. An American’s 2GB iPhone or iPad data plan will net him a little over an hour each day of medium-quality streaming music… and that’s not taking into account any other use for your mobile data per month. And with video, it’s even worse.
Streaming will come to iCloud some day, I have no doubt, but hindsight being 20/20, it’s clear that iCloud was never really about streaming. It wasn’t about killing downloads at all. It was about killing iTunes.